Canon Law Question: Parish Property

The thread about whether it is allowed, necessary, offensive, or charitable (or so on) for a Catholic parish to offer its church for Yom Kippur services raises the following question with me:

**I know from numerous archdiocesan statements during the bankruptcy proceedings for the Archdiocese of Portland that parish property is, under canon law, the legal property of the parish, and not the property of the archdiocese. **My question is this: does that give the parish any legal perogative over the use of their property, other than not to be sued for damages for actions taken by employees of the Archdiocese, rather than employees of the parish itself? And what does canon law mean by “parish” in this case? Parishioners, by a vote? A duly-elected parish council? An entity with legal existence under canon law, but which the parishioners have no actual control over? Or…?

Does a parish have the legal authority, under canon law, to prohibit anyone, even their bishop or the employees of the diocese, to perform or give permission for non-Catholic liturgies? If so, how? In answering, you might define that in one of two ways:

  1. Non-Catholic liturgies could be defined as anything not promulgated by Rome for the use of Catholics everywhere or by the local ordinary specifically for use by Catholics in his diocese.
  2. Non-Catholic liturgies could be defined more narrowly as liturgies promulgated and/or participated in by a sect or denomination not directly under the authority of Rome.

That is, a Catholic Mass with rubrics violations would be non-Catholic under definition (1), but not under definition (2), but Yom Kippur services or even a liturgy written by the Lutherans would fit both.

Now, with regards to definition (1), theoretically I’m asking whether a parish would have the right under canon law to prohibit violations of the rubrics, but of course in practical terms, what could they do to enforce that they don’t already have a right to insist on as individual Catholics with a right to the sacraments? With regards to definition (2), I’m asking whether a parish has to allow its pastor give permission for non-Catholics to worship on parish property, or if it can ever forbid that.

Specifically, can a parish prohibit their pastor and/or staff or even the diocese from allowing non-Catholic liturgies on their property? In their church? If so, under what canon(s) would they have that right, and how practically would that be likely to play out?

NOTE: The thread isn’t about should the parish do it, or ought the parish do it. The question is: could they? Is that their right?

I invite answers to this question that are both practical and theoretical: that is, what is legally so, what is practically so, and so on. For instance, is it the usual protocol of bishops to respect such a desire from a parish in his diocese, if a parish articulates that desire to him in some particular way?

I’m very curious to hear conjectures about the politics and protocol would might come into play in such cases, not just the letter of the law.

It would help if you were to cite the Canon that specifically states that parish facilities are the property of the parish.

Rather than quote what the Archdiocese of Portland used as its defense, it would be helpful to see what the actual Canon is.

My understanding of the issue of ownership of real property is that it differs from state to state. This complicates things. You also need to know if the Diocese or the Parish owns the land only or if the building and furnishings are included.

However, even if a clear ownership on behalf of the parish could be shown, the use of parish buildings and facilities is by the authority of the pastor who is bound to obedience to the Bishop. So, I can’t see how the theoretical you have proposed would ever be allowed.

The parish has no authority outside the pastor’s. Even where a parish has a Parish Council, it is an advisory entity. A Parish Council can never over-ride the pastor. The pastor, on the other hand, can enforce the rubrics for any priest who says Mass in the parish.

On a side note, there is no reason that non-Catholic liturgies can’t be held in a Catholic Church. The only consideration is that the Blessed Sacrament be removed if the tabernacle is in the main Church.

Corki, the issue is not so much non-Catholic liturgies, as it is non-Christian. In the case in question, a Jewish community used the sanctuary of a Catholic church in Austin for its services. Inasmuch as the Church is the New Israel, a non-Christian service is a non-Christian service.

Now, our bishop permitted Jerry Jones’ nephew (yes, that Jerry Jones) to get married at the Cathedral in a Methodist service (the altar was not touched). The deacon was there to ensure that everything was in order. He transferred the Blessed Sacrament to the chapel that we use for Holy Thursday. We, as staff, stayed there to also ensure that everything was running smoothly. Even the altar servers stayed behind, only because they wanted to meet Jerry. As an aside, he was very nice and let the kids take pictures with him (outside the cathedral) while each kid held his superbowl ring.

But, in this case, the parishioners are not even allowed into the sanctuary.

I get that. But I was trying to answer the OP’s “theoretical”.

Does a parish have the legal authority, under canon law, to prohibit anyone, even their bishop or the employees of the diocese, to perform or give permission for non-Catholic liturgies? If so, how? In answering, you might define that in one of two ways:

  1. **Non-Catholic liturgies could be defined as anything not promulgated by Rome **for the use of Catholics everywhere or by the local ordinary specifically for use by Catholics in his diocese.
  2. Non-Catholic liturgies could be defined more narrowly as liturgies promulgated and/or participated in by a sect or denomination not directly under the authority of Rome.

I don’t know what canon law was being referred to, only that the Archdiocese held that the Archbishop has no authority to sell off parish properties to satisfy archdiocesan debt. If the pastor can do whatever he wants and the bishop has authority over the pastor, this doesn’t really compute. Yet the assets of individual parishes were not tapped into when the Archdiocese was sued. Apparently, the judge bought that canon law amounted to a legally binding understanding between the Church and the faithful, and bought that the Archbishop couldn’t go after parish properties. I was hoping someone with a law background understood all of this.

Yes, it is my understanding, too, that there is nothing in canon law that prevents non-Catholic liturgies from being allowed into a Catholic church, nor anything that defines something like that as being a defilement to the church. That isn’t the question.

Of course canon law isn’t going to give the parishes any rights with regards to oversight of Catholic liturgy. I’m talking about permitting the incursion of non-Catholic activities. The question is whether if a pastor wants to let out the parish church for whatever he pleases, does the parish have any recourse under canon law, provided that canon law is not being violated by the permitted activity itself or the bishop does not intervene? Do the faithful have any right to have access to their parish churches, for instance? Benedictgal seems to think so, but nobody has supported that with canon law or known juridical precedent. Any right to object to whatever the pastor sees fit to allow? In the past, pastors had something like the divine right of princes with regards to running their parishes, provided they didn’t displease royalty higher up the line. Is that still true, at least legally speaking? Does the pastor have the right to do as he pleases, until the objections of the faithful either tongue-lash the pastor into submission or gain a sympathetic ear higher up the line? I’m assuming they’re getting their rights met: access to the sacraments, for instance. I know he can’t tie up the parish church so that the faithful don’t get Sunday Mass or a place to hold their own weddings and funerals.

I don’t mean to put that in a way that comes across as anti-clerical, or imply that we ought to have a democracy going. It was just my impression that pastors did not have such broad authority as they used to, under the new code of canon law. Has it changed at all, or not? Do the faithful of any particular parish have any legal rights under canon law in this area? Or just the practical recourse of prayer, loud protests, relentless appeals to the pastor and bishop, and, of course, the ever-popular threat of empty collection baskets?

Again, I mean this with regards to persistence of protest, and not as an anti-clerical jab: Is the parable of the widow and the corrupt judge all that applies here?

Here are some pertinent provisions in Canon Law:

Can. 515 §1. A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop.

§2. It is only for the diocesan bishop to erect, suppress, or alter parishes. He is neither to erect, suppress, nor alter notably parishes, unless he has heard the presbyteral council.

I have yet to see a provision that states that the property belongs to the parish. As I read it, the law seems to point to the diocese.

As I said, I’m not a canon lawyer. I do know enough about law to know that most laws imply far more than they might seem to at first reading. Well, think about the amendments to the Constitution! Give a jurist a few sentences, and the implications are multitudinous.

Nevertheless, it would seem that a parish is a juridical construct that can own property separate from the diocese, but that the administration of the parish is ultimately under the authority of the bishop. That does not imply that a bishop can do as he pleases, any more than a trustee can do anything he wants with a trust fund in his care. It does mean that those the trust is meant to exist for do not necessarily have any direct say in how the trust is administered.

Ultimately, though, you are probably right. What the pastor decides to do on parish grounds is under his authority, with only the bishop over him. The parishioners do not have a direct right to decide what is or is not permitted on parish grounds.

In other words, if the bishop allows Yom Kippur services in a Catholic church, the parishioners don’t have a thing to say about it. If the bishop or someone above him doesn’t judge that a church needs re-consecration, it doesn’t need re-consecration. If canon law itself does not forbid something, if the bishop doesn’t forbid it, and if the pastor doesn’t forbid it, it is allowed…the bishop being under the Holy See, of course. How the parishioners feel about it is, legally speaking only, besides the point. They can complain, of course, but under canon law they have no other recourse.

If that’s what you’re saying, I think you’re right. Maybe a canon lawyer could chime in.


Can you define what you mean by “the parish” as an entity that wants to do something?

The “parish” as an organizational entity of the Church is headed by the pastor. It is illogical that it could act against the pastor’s wishes since he would have to approve that action.

Now, individual parishioners can join together to object to something or to try to make something happen. They can do this with or without the pastor’s approval or help. They would usually do that through the diocese. Sometimes there’s the equivalent of an omnisbudsman in the chancery to handle this type of issue.

In other words, if the bishop allows Yom Kippur services in a Catholic church, the parishioners don’t have a thing to say about it. If the bishop or someone above him doesn’t judge that a church needs re-consecration, it doesn’t need re-consecration. If canon law itself does not forbid something, if the bishop doesn’t forbid it, and if the pastor doesn’t forbid it, it is allowed…the bishop being under the Holy See, of course. How the parishioners feel about it is, legally speaking only, besides the point. They can complain, of course, but under canon law they have no other recourse.

The parishioners can say lots of things about it. They can complain to the Bishop, the CDW, etc. They can complain but that doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with them. :slight_smile:

As for re-consecration, wouldn’t it be the Bishop’s office that approved any de-consecration? De-consecration is a formal process that usually takes place when a Church building is sold or about to be demolished. (Canon law calls this “regulating it to profane but not sordid use”) I think you might be confusing de-consecration with sacrilage. If the Church building has been treated sacreligiously (and I am not saying it has, but IF), a blessing is all that is needed. That happens at every Mass.

I have read the other thread, BTW, on the Yom Kippur “incident”. I think the pastor acted very imprudently and was far too casual about the sacredness of the Sanctuary. Although the communication from the Diocese wasn’t published, as far as I saw, it looks like the pastor acted “alone” and without diocisan authority. If that is the case, he was wrong. But Yom Kippur was yesterday. You can’t unring the bell. The diocese is now aware of what the pastor did and told him not to do it again without involving the Bishop’s office. The Church is now open to all parishioners, right? Unless there is a proposal to repeat this event, what are you asking them to “prevent”?

Complain and complain loudly, I say. Make sure that the diocese knows that you are unhappy, even outraged. But don’t expect them to act on a “what if” that might not ever happen again. There is likely to be some internal “discussion” with the pastor regarding his unapproved actions but that’s an internal personnel matter.

As an aside, even if there is Church Law regarding the property itself as belonging to the parish, that doesn’t mean that the admistration of the parish as a community is not under the authority of the Bishop.

The parishioners do not have a direct right to decide what is or is not permitted on parish grounds.

The parishioners do not have **direct rights **to decide anything in a parish, regardless of who owns what. A parish is not a club where each person gets a vote. Parishioners are not deciders. The rights of parishioner involve what each of us has the right to receive (Sacraments, pastoral care, etc.) not what we have the right to *do *or decide.

To start with, here’s a link to the entire codex of canons

While there is a lot to discuss in this thread, I’ll address just a few of (what I see to be) the most relevant issues from canon law.

The answers to people’s questions here are found throughout the entire code, not just in a few places:

A parish is a “juridic person”–what we would call in civil law a “corporation” (the word itself means “a body”) see c. 515

Can. 1282 All clerics or lay persons who take part in the administration of ecclesiastical goods by a legitimate title are bound to fulfill their functions in the name of the Church according to the norm of law.

The canons speak mostly of “goods” (ie property) but apply equally to real-property (buildings/land).

Can. 1205 Sacred places are those which are designated for divine worship or for the burial of the faithful by a dedication or a blessing which the liturgical books prescribe for this purpose

“Designated for divine worship” means set-apart for no use other than divine worship (which means Catholic worship) But that doesn’t necessarily mean absolutely and exclusively reserved. The pastor could call a parish meeting with everyone gathering in the church, just for example; even though it’s not “worship” it’s allowed by virtue of 1210

Can. 1210 Only those things which serve the exercise or promotion of worship, piety, or religion are permitted in a sacred place; anything not consonant with the holiness of the place is forbidden. In an individual case, however, the ordinary can permit other uses which are not contrary to the holiness of the place.
The canons do not specifically say that “only Catholic services” can be held in a Catholic church. Rather the canons do say that anything contrary to the holiness of the place is forbidden. For other-than-Catholic services, the local ordinary must be consulted.

Can. 519 The pastor (parochus) is the proper pastor (pastor) of the parish entrusted to him, exercising the pastoral care of the community committed to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop in whose ministry of Christ he has been called to share, so that for that same community he carries out the functions of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, also with the cooperation of other presbyters or deacons and with the assistance of lay members of the Christian faithful, according to the norm of law.

Note that the pastor, under the authority of the bishop, carries out the functions of governing–that includes being the administrator of all the parish goods (property and real property)

Can. 532 In all juridic affairs the pastor represents the parish according to the norm of law. He is to take care that the goods of the parish are administered according to the norm of ⇒ cann. 1281-1288.

I think that gets to the heart of what people are asking. The pastor himself makes all the day-by-day decisions of the parish, so yes, the pastor decides what is or is not appropriate use of the building. However, this authority is not absolute. He must do so according to the norm of law.

See also canon 536 A parish council only advises the pastor, it has no governing authority.

When we ask “who is the parish?” the parish is a juridic person–again, a corporation. But don’t take that too far. Saying that it is a “corporation” simply means that it is a legal entity that has “personhood” under the law. It does not mean that parishioners are “shareholders” in this “corporation.”

“The parish” doesn’t “speak to” the pastor because the pastor himself is the voice of the parish. Parishioners (individually or collectively) might speak to the pastor, but “the parish” cannot, logically speaking, do so becuase only the pastor speaks for the juridic person that is the parish. That’s why it’s logically impossible to say that “the parish” can or might (or even cannot) over-rule the pastor.

The bishop is the pastor of his diocese, and he likewise exercises the power of governance over the entire diocese, including individual parishes. c. 381

The long and short of it appears to be that if the pastor permits something on parish grounds that neither his bishop nor Rome nor canon law has previously forbidden, then that’s it, the bell’s rung, and there aren’t grounds for asking that he be censured. If not prohibited by some management guidelines previously given by his bishop, for instance, he can do that.

Like it or not, allowing non-Catholics to conduct their own worship in a Catholic church (as opposed to having Catholics participating) does not violate canon law, per se, or at least not as far as I can tell. It could, but it might not, too. There is no definitive Church position that prohibits it. Allowing that to happen, with or without the sacred art covered, is not defined as a sacrilege. Covering one set of artworks with another that are not, per se, in violation of the Catholic understanding of the holiness of the space is also not a sacrilege. Presumably, it would be a tall order to prohibit passages from the Bible just because the artists rendered them in their original language or languages. Therefore, covering the Stations of the Cross with “Judaic symbols” might be wholly acceptable under canon law, even during Mass!

I’m not sure that, except for the dictates of prudence, this pastor was under any obligation to inform the bishop of his decision. A pastor does not have to obtain the permission of the local ordinary before allowing non-Catholics to use a church, unless the bishop has given direction that he has to. It’s just a guess, but I’m guessing that this incident may well have engendered an internal memo, clarifying this specific bishop’s position on this specific matter, sent to all the pastors from the chancery office in Austin. Or something similar, the next time the bishop had them in the same room…:rolleyes:

So, that answers half of my question, and thank you. I’m not disappointed at the answer; I just wanted to satisfy myself that the upset parishioners didn’t have some redress I was unaware of. It seems that they don’t.

Here is my second question…which, realizing you have a bishop, I will ask you to address in totally theoretical terms, having nothing necessarily to do with the exceptional bishop you actually have.

Is this the kind of thing that a pastor would expect to catch heat for not asking his bishop about first, is this the kind of thing that a pastor would be surprised to learn his bishop wanted to be informed of, or is this purely a matter of “know thy bishop”? I’m only asking your experience, not a definitive answer, unless such exists in some document all the priests get from Rome while at the seminary, or something like that.

I’ve thought it would be prudent for this to have been explained; others thought it imprudent to have done it at all, even if canon law and the bishop allowed it, because it would offend the parishioners. Now, I would hazard to guess that there are priests who would not find it prudent to explain this matter, because they don’t want to start a precedent implying that they have any obligation to explain themselves to anybody but the bishop, and who don’t find any need to concern themselves with what offends the parishioners, since everything they do seems to offend somebody, particularly in a big parish that blends the whole spectrum of Catholic thought. Again, a matter of each priest’s personal discretion and “management style”…True?


There’s more to this. Canon 1205 speaks of what happens in a “dedicated place” like a Church. The canon law (actually the canon of laws) is the overall law of the Church, but there are also other levels of law, which get into more specifics.

Although the pastor has the power of governance, remember that he exercises that authority only within the norm of law. So as you’ll see in a moment, it is not within the pastor’s competence to make a decision like this.

That’s when we turn to the “Principles and Norms on Ecumenism” Note that these norms do have the force of law.

  1. Catholic churches are consecrated or blessed buildings which have an important theological and liturgical significance for the Catholic community. They are therefore generally reserved for Catholic worship. However, if priests, ministers or communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church do not have a place or the liturgical objects necessary for celebrating worthily their religious ceremonies, the diocesan Bishop may allow them the use of a church or a Catholic building and also lend them what may be necessary for their services. Under similar circumstances, permission may be given to them for interment or for the celebration of services at Catholic cemeteries.

Note here that the permission of the diocesan bishop is required. The pastor does not have the authority to allow a non-Catholic community to use a Catholic church-building. Only the bishop can give this permission (in this case, the diocesan administrator would essentially have the same authority as the bishop proper, although he does not have the authority to change any diocesan laws which were established previously by the actual bishop). So to answer your second question, a pastor who fails to obtain the bishop’s permission before allowing such use would indeed be in violation of the law.

Does that help, or just make things more confusing?

No, that helps a lot!! Let me ask you to clarify, though: Although a bishop could concievably allow it–and in this case, appears to have used his legitimate authority to let this single instance go forward–a pastor does not have it in his own administrative authority to allow it without permission. Is that correct?

For instance, our archdiocese has funeral and burial policies that allow this or do not allow that thing which a bishop has it in his authority to allow or not allow. In that case, a priest wouldn’t have to get specific permission, as long as his case was covered by the bishop’s written policy. A bishop might also deputise a diocesan administrator to apply the bishop’s own policies to specific cases, with the presumption that anything not clearly covered by the bishop’s instructions to the administrator would be brought to the bishop for a decision. Any permissions not explicitly covered by the policies of the bishop would require special permission.

In the Yom Kippur case, although a bishop could conceivably allow this either generally within guidelines that ensure canon law is followed or on a case-by-case basis, this is also clearly is a case of “what is not allowed, is forbidden”, and not the other way around. And of course the bishop must himself follow the policies set down by Rome and canon law, and obtain permission himself when Rome has specified he must do so. (As in the case, for instance, for inititating any local variations in the GIRM…the bishop can do it, if and only if he has Rome’s specific permission for each variation.)

Thank you very much, that is very helpful! :thumbsup: Let me know where I’m not quite getting it, though.

There is also a key phrase here, “communities not in ***full Communion ***with the Church”. Here, as I read it, it refers to Protestant ecclesial communities. The component of Christianity would be assumed here. It does not refer to non-Christians, per se, since they are not in any kind of Communion with Rome. This would include Judaism.

Interesting question and an interesting thread. I did some googling on the matter and found an excellent piece entitled Who Owns the Church.

The short answer seems to be that, at least in the USA, it really depends on the diocese in question.

It’s a combination of dioceses policies as well as different state laws. Sometimes it also varies within a diocese, depending upon what name is listed on the deed to the property, what name is listed on the bank account as “owner” and/or “officer” (the owner might be “St. so-and-so Parish” but the officer might be Bishop X or Father Y). In some dioceses, the actual property owner on the deed is the parish name for older parishes, but newer parish properties might be under the name of the diocese or the bishop as a “corporation sole” When we talk about civil law and who “owns” the parish property, it can get very very confusing.

Ultimately, the bishop (the office of the bishop) has complete authority of governance over every parish, but like the parish pastor, he has to operate within the norm of law. So regardless of how civil law defines “ownership” the authority to actually govern the parish always rests with the bishop.

First, correct, this is not a decision that the local pastor can make based on his own authority.

Generally speaking, bishops can delegate their authority to individual priests. But the thing we must keep in mind is that because the Church requires the bishop’s permission, unless the bishop has either given that permission or has specifically delegated that to someone else, no one, not even a pastor can presume to have that permission.

It’s not a matter of “what is not allowed is forbidden” because it is indeed specifically forbidden–but an exception can be made by legitimate authority. And that decision is reserved to the bishop.

Just to clarify the part about an administrator:
A bishop cannot delegate anything to a diocesan administrator because a diocese only has an administrator if there is no bishop (vacant diocese), or the bishop himself is not able or not permitted to exercise his office (impeded diocese). An administrator cannot make any changes to diocese policy because he isn’t the bishop of the diocese, so he cannot “make law.” However, he can also delegate his own authority to others.

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